Monday, 17 April 2017

Personal Publicist for a not so Celebrity Author - Chitra Soundar

When my first book came out in the UK in 2010, other than a card from my publisher Walker Books, I did not do anything to celebrate it, publicise it or promote it. Only my Mum knew and she was proud. Even though it was my 14th or 15th book internationally, in the UK it was my first and it had fizzled out like a firecracker on a wet Diwali night. 
While I placed four picture book titles in India in 2012, life went on in the UK in a pattern of day job and rejections. The Indian books started coming out in 2014 and it coincided with my moving from a full-time job to a part-time situation. Now I had time to go into schools and I had found my sea legs so to speak.
            In 2015 – after five years of waiting, I had a second book accepted with Walker Books and a picture book with Otter-Barry Books. And to top that, my Indian picture book Farmer Falgu series too was going to be distributed in the UK by Red Robin Books and suddenly I realised four books were all going to come out in the last quarter of 2016.
            I decided it was unusual and cruel for a writer to have four books coming out in the same quarter. At the same time it was opportunity. (The Law of Lemons and Lemonade).

I didn’t want to throw the opportunity into oblivion as I had done before in 2010. Here is what I did to maximise the air cover I got while the smell of new books was still lingering on my doorstep.  So I decided to hire a freelance publicist.

But before I go further, here is the disclaimer - I’m not saying this is for everyone - because it does cost hard-earned money (money I earned at the day job or the advance I got for these books whichever was on top of the pile at the ATM). But at that time, I wanted a boost to my brand and I wanted to do justice for these two "diverse" books to be noticed. Would I have done this (or been able to) if I didn’t have a day job? Perhaps not.

            So for those who are curious, here is how I handled hiring a personal publicist even though I was not a celebrity author.

Step 1: Write a publicity plan
            I looked up the guidelines in the SCBWI publicity grant guidelines and I modelled one on it. I didn’t get the grant. But I had done the research At least I knew what I wanted to do.
Step 2: Find a Publicist
            I looked for freelance publicists who could be commissioned to work directly with me for my books. I found five who specialised in children’s books out of which two responded. One said No and the other agreed. I met with her and we planned a campaign for the two books that had a definite date and also because it fit within her budget.

Step 3: Surprise the Publisher
            Firstly we informed our publishers that I was going to take care of my publicity by ploughing back the advance. It did make them sit back and watch what I was up to. I also wanted to make sure we were not stepping on toes and both the official publicist and the freelance publicist knew who was doing what.
Step 4: Send word to the world
            Then my freelance publicist sent out review copies, blog posts requests, bookshop and festival requests. And we had to wait. Ah the waiting game, I knew how to play it. I’m a writer. I knew how to chew bed sheets, go on walks, cry into the pillow and press the refresh button on my inbox a million times a day while I waited.
Step 5: Start the in-house campaign
            While the publicist was focussed on the outside world, I was focussed on what I could do in the meantime. Here are some things I did while I waited.
·      Spruce up my website – I reformatted my entire website to look new, fresh and welcoming for all the new people who might look me up when they receive our publicity requests
·      Create posters – this is where came in. I spent an unhealthy number of days on Canva designing posters to print, blog graphics and post cards and stuff. Canva actually sent me an email saying, “You’re here a lot, do you want to go pro?”
·      Write blog posts for my own website – I started writing about the books ahead of the launch to create anticipation.
·      Find friends who would host my blog – in addition to whom the publicist was contacting – I reached out to friends who were happy to host me on their blogs.
·      Create classroom content and extras for school visits – I have a small site under my banner for kids stuff – it has puzzles and activities and intro to my illustrators and such. I updated a lot of this content for the new books.
·      Request the illustrator to do a blog post – Frané Lessac (illustrator of Pattan's Pumpkin) was amazing. She agreed to be interviewed for my site and hosted my content on her blog too. 
·      Request the illustrator for resources - Frané Lessac was kind enough to make me colouring sheets and craft activities etc.
Step 5: Plan the book launch
            I did hit a block when I came to this. My freelance publicist wasn’t going to arrange the launch and I had to cold-call a number of South London bookshops. Most of them turned me down and a few looked me up and then turned me down.
            I turned to the amazing Nicky Potter who did publicity for Otter-Barry Books for help and she introduced me to the North London bookshop Pickled Pepper Books. They are amazing, aren’t they?

            Of course I wasted more time on the Internet planning the launch. I invited everyone I knew, create events in Facebook and ordered matching cupcakes. A wise author once said, “A launch without cake is no launch at all.”

Step 6: Write insane number of blog posts
            The publicist had arranged for me to blog on different sites. I had to find an angle that was different and unique to their blog about the same two books. I wrote over 25 blog posts in a matter of five weeks, not including the ones I had promised friends to write on their blog too. At one point I was so worried I was going to run out of things to say. Luckily my early life as a chatterbox came in handy.
Step 7: Make a Trailer
            I loved wasting time on the computer while watching reruns of Big Bang Theory. So I decided to try my hand at making a trailer. My one day course with SOA on how to make videos using iMovie by Shoo Rayner, came in handy. Interestingly, I learnt a few things along the way.
·      Get permission from everyone before you release the trailer into the world. Of course my publisher Janetta Otter-Barry was impressed and so was her team. My illustrator Frane Lessac loved it and she was happy to consent.
·      Use original photos, text and permitted content. Luckily I had my own photos and where required those in public domain I could use and attribute.

Step 8: Prepare for diversions
            As the first book’s publicity was proceeding, the freelance publicist had landed a full-time job. Now she was no longer available to promote my second book. But before I could panic, she managed to secure the services of another publicist and made sure the work continued uninterrupted. Things are always fluid and coping with them as they come was one of the things I do at my day-job and that was useful in dealing with this.
Step 9: Keep a Calendar
            I had so many balls up in the air that I had to create a calendar of events and blog posts and keep them updated. By now bookshop visits were coming in and they were spread across a range of 3-4 months. My calendar resembled a jigsaw puzzle in colour. I hoped I could find the edges if everything fell apart. 
Step 10: Be grateful for kindness of friends
            Few days before the launch, a school librarian reached out to me and asked if I could do two libraries and her school in her borough as a pre-launch promotion. I was so grateful for the support. Except fate interfered and sent the flu virus to land on me and the day before the launch I was on the road armed with my books and a stack of tissues.

And so, the freelance publicists who worked on the campaign had opened many doors I hadn’t been able to approach. I got into some really wonderful festivals and bookshops, got noticed by some organisations who would not have heard of me otherwise, got some print reviews in teachers’ magazines and trade publicity magazines.
It gave me the boost I needed and putting in all the work on my own, hours in front of a computer not writing, sweating the details of fonts and images on websites proved very productive.
            Whether you are traditionally published and want a leg up for your new book or you are self-published and want to build a brand, it might be a worthwhile option to look into. It is hard work and it involves spending money and I did a lot of DIY work myself – like posting letters, printing posters, writing blog posts, sprucing my website etc. But it was a good learning experience and I can build on the contacts I have now been introduced to.

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Anita Marion Loughrey said...

This is an excellent and informative post. I have considered hiring a publicist for a long time. After having over 80 books published I still feel unknown. It is about time I did something about it. Thank you for sharing your journey.

Candy Gourlay said...

Thanks for this fascinating and educational post ... plus wow, I love your book trailer. And it looks like the publicist opened doors. Is it elbow grease (pitching and admin) or contacts that make employing a freelance publicist worth the dime? What were the goals of your strategy and did it include a minimum book sale figure?

Mystica said...

Such a lot of hard work and drive goes behind the scenes. Excellent post

Sharon Tregenza said...

Good post, Chitra. Thank you.

Enid Richemont said...

That is fascinating, Chitra. How brave to just gulp and then go for it. I know that bookshop, too. Have you tried for the Children's Bookshop Muswell Hill? Are you London-based? Or even better, North london-based? If so, coffee sometime?

Chitra Soundar said...

Hi Candy, no my goal was not sales based - just getting into places I couldn't as an unknown author or an author who didn't have the publisher's marketing budget behind it either because I was small or because they don't have enough resources. The advantage came from their contacts - people knew them and they knew whom to send stuff to. I think over time we can build the list - some are easier than others and some are definitely closed without either the publisher's backing or a pro publicist.

Enid - I live 3 days in South London (the edge of it, near Tower Bridge) and then rest in Wiltshire. We can surely get together for coffee.

Chitra Soundar said...

Anita - it always works better when you have a new book out. Reviewers, festivals etc are more interested in the upcoming books than your backlist. But once you get in you can definitely leverage on the relationship. That's where my performance came into play - my blog posts were on time, I tweeted them out, did the events to the satisfaction of the organiser - and then they want to invite you for other things.

Gill James said...

Really interesting and informative. But oh, it made me feel tired. On the other hand, is it work if you're doing what you love? On top of a day job, though. Well done you.

Frances Brown said...

What a fantastic post, Chitra! You worked your tail off, there and it seems hiring a publicist is only a small part of the job as a whole. But, did it help with sales? Even though it was not your aim, has it boosted sales at all? I suppose it takes time, while you become more well known. I wish you the best with all your books. Thanks for sharing your experience.

Penny Dolan said...

Really useful, Chitra. Thank you so much for this honest post about the work behind getting a book noticed.

Stroppy Author said...

I find your hard work and commitment inspiring but the need for it deeply depressing. Why on earth should you have to spend your advance on publicity? Publishing is in a very poor state for this to be acceptable. I really hope it pays off for you, but it makes me very angry with your (and all) publishers, I'm afraid.

Chitra Soundar said...

Hi Anne - to be fair one of my publishers did. It want me to do it and they had a fab publicist. But in the other case i was one of their smallest fishes and even my contract is because my editor supports me. They have started paying attention. It has definitely opened doors and let me into places where I couldn't have knocked. And it was a personal goal too - to make something of the two books coming out at the same time. But I know what you mean - we should have fair allocation of publicity and marketing resources - but in commercial ventures it all depends on brand value, isn't it? I might not do it again. But it was useful and perhaps at the right time for me especially being un-agented.

David Thorpe said...

This is a very helpful post, Chitra. For my last book I hired a publicist too (specialising in books – she used to work for a publisher), but my mistake was not to work closely enough with her. I supplied lots of books she requested and she mailed them out but then failed to follow up with phone calls, because she said afterwards she had run out of the time she had been paid for. If she had told me this I would have paid for more time, as it was the cost of the books and postage etc was wasted. Next time I will know better.

Chitra Soundar said...

True / I did a couple of Meetings and emailed her regularly. I checked in about the money too - I made sure I covered postage and other expenses on time. There's always new things to learn. :)